German Left Party scores gain in state elections

BERLIN -- After state elections Sunday, all five main parties in Germany tried to stick in a thumb and pull out a plum or two. Some plums were very sweet, with others rather on the sour side, and the TV smiles of some leaders seemed very forced. The big fight will be on September 27th when the entire Bundestag, or national parliament, is chosen. But the elections to three state legislatures and for mayors and city councils in a fourth state were exciting enough.

In general, the big coalition parties now still running the national government in unhappy wedlock, the Social Democrats (SPD) and Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) both chalked up losses, in the latter case some very heavy ones. The three smaller opposition parties all gained ground.

Probably the happiest man came from Saarland, a small state tucked away next to Luxembourg and France. Oskar Lafontaine was once mayor of its capital, Saarbruecken, and then Saarland's minister-president before moving into a top position in the national SPD. But when this party moved further and further rightward, ever closer to big business interests, Lafontaine quit in disgust even though he thus lost most party friends and seemingly ended his life in politics.

But he has risen again, like the mythical phoenix from the ashes, this time as a leader of the young party called The Left, a joint venture of other disgusted SPD members and militant union activists in western Germany with the Party of Democratic Socialism in eastern Germany, the politically born-again remnant of the old governing party in the German Democratic Republic. In the last general elections in 2005 this new Left party managed to break out of East German isolation and win a respectable 8 percent. Since then, while remaining far stronger in the East, it overcame the fateful five percent requirement and won legislature seats in a handful of West German states, if often by an uncomfortably thin margin.

This was enough to frighten the four other main parties, who have been talking out of the left sides of their mouths ever since, stealing every social plank of the Left while acting as if it were their own. They joined in brutal red-baiting attacks on the Left, smothering its voice in the media while dismissing it as spawn of Honecker, Stalin or just possibly Satan. Fearing Lafontaine above all, they smeared him in every conceivable manner, digging through all derogatory adjectives in the thesaurus to denounce him as a traitor, a fool, a menace - or all three.

Some people in the Saarland fell for this on Sunday, and the ruling Christian Democrats (CDU) stayed in first position. But their measly 31 percentage points - a 13 percent drop from 2005 - marked their worst showing since 1949. Many recalled how Lafontaine once helped renovate the capital's rundown central area, made it a major station on the speedy new Paris-Frankfurt rail link and lured urgently needed new industry to Saarland. They still trusted "our Oskar" and overcame the ceaseless baiting and character assassination to give the Left a sensational 21 percent vote, by far the best it has ever achieved in Western Germany and close on the heels of the SPD (with 24.5 percent).

This put three options on the table. To stay in office the Christian Democrats (CDU) would not only need the delegates of their favorite big-business buddies, the Free Democrats (FDP), but also of the three Green representatives in the legislature. German parties all have color symbols; a clerical black for the CDU, yellow for the Free Democrats (FDP) and of course green. There would then be a "Jamaica coalition" - some clever journalist once noticed that these are the colors of the Jamaican flag. Will the Greens forget their once leftish roots and join a rightwing coalition? They did just that last year in Hamburg.

The second option: the CDU could invite the SPD to form a "grand coalition" of the two "biggies", like the one still ruling on the national level. But neither of them likes this solution.

The third option: If the SPD were to join with the Left and the Greens to form a red-red-green coalition (surprisingly, the SPD color is, officially, still red). Whether the SPD and the Greens have the guts to defy red-baiting and join with the Left is open to question. Whatever the decision, Lafontaine's durable popularity and militancy have broken many taboos while the CDU lost seriously.

Thuringia is a beautiful East German state with historical cities like Weimar, Erfurt, Jena and Eisenach (where J.S. Bach was born). Like Saarland, it too has been ruled for years by a CDU minister-president strong enough to dispense with coalition partners. He had two accidents this year, one a skiing collision where his mistaken behavior caused the death of a woman skier (and young mother). The other was his huge loss of popularity, only partly due to the fatal skiing error. In a steep dip, his CDU lost about 13 percent of former votes. It remains the largest party but, as in Saarland, lacks enough seats, even with its FDP buddies, to govern the state. The options here are similar to those in Saarland, with one major difference. The red-baiting here, though perhaps even more intense, just doesn't work as well as in western Germany. Almost every evening some TV program tries to convince people how miserable they were in the GDR - while others lie, over and over, that the Left hasn't really changed at all but still stands for everything nasty, from the Stasi to the Berlin Wall. Lots of people no longer swallow this - and the Left improved its second place in Thuringia with 27.6 percent of the vote, not far behind the CDU (31.3) and well ahead of the SPD (18.6).

A Jamaica coalition - CDU, FDP and Greens - is not possible here, they didn't win enough seats. Again, the obvious answer would seem to be a coalition of the Left, the SPD and the Greens. But the latter two have indicated they will never accept a government headed by the leader of the Left in Thuringia, Bodo Ramelow, a West German union leader who moved to Thuringia soon after the Wall went down. Among other things, they point to one member of his election team, a woman who, back in 1986, worked for one year with the GDR police, in a job connected with the Stasi. Ramelow and the Left insist that she has long since proved both her regret and her ability.

One real hindrance is certainly that same old fear of prevalent GDR-baiting, the equivalent of red-baiting. As in Saarland, it remains to be seen whether the once leftist (or leftish) SPD and Greens take that rutted old road, joining with the right to stop the left no matter what social damage that brings to the population. Maybe they can break with the past - possibly meaning the first Left minister-president in all of Germany. The biggest challenge will be to save the important Opel works in Eisenach, still a subsidiary of GM at the moment, and in great danger of closing down.

The picture was quite different in Saxony, the most industrial of East German states, with centers like Leipzig, Chemnitz and the capital, Dresden. Here, too, the CDU has always been strongest party, though in the last legislative period its lack of an absolute majority forced it into an unhappy coalition with the SPD (as on the national level). A fairly new minister-president, Stanislaw Tillich - who belongs to the small Slavic minority of Sorbs, or Wends, who live in this area - is quite popular and was smart enough to risk nothing which could endanger his popularity. The CDU remained strongest party (at about 40 percent) while here too the Left was in second place, with a slightly diminished 21 percent.

Tillich, in need of a partner to stay in power, will almost surely ditch the Social Democrats - who failed miserably again with about 10 percent - and take instead the big-biz Free Democrats (FDP) who may even have surpassed the SPD total. Many claim the Left put up less than a fighting campaign; in recent years they were often busy quarreling among themselves, especially in Dresden.

The Nazis in Saxony lost many former voters, just managing to surmount the 5 percent hurdle and keep seven deputies in the legislature, as many as the Greens. They lost in the other states but in Saxony they have seats in every county council and remain demagogic and dangerous.

The local elections in Germany's most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, were too varied to permit major conclusions. Some Social Democrats won (as in Cologne), some Christian Democrats, a few Greens - while the Left, though making satisfying gains in a number of cities, got less than 4.5 percent on the state level.

All in all, Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, expecting a pushover in September and a happy coalition with the FDP, now found they too can suffer heavy losses. The Social Democrats, almost hopelessly behind in national polls, made meager gains they are eager to overstate, while the population, sick of the present "grand coalition" and fearful of what it may throw at them after the elections and all its hollow promises, has tended to give more votes to the Greens, the Free Democrats with their constantly grinning, very clever leader Guido Westerwelle, or to the Left, which really trumped in Saarland thanks largely to Oskar Lafontaine.

It will certainly have to fight harder in other areas and solve or at least smooth over internal differences. One of them is on an optimistic note: how to behave if the Left is part of a coalition government, perhaps in Saarland or Thuringia. Some fear that comfortable cabinet desk jobs and the spotlight could tame them just as they did the SPD and Greens. Others stress that a strong Left fraction in the Bundestag after September 27th , regardless of differences, could make a withdrawal from Afghanistan more likely and at least slow down the expected assault on social benefits and human rights.

 

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